9/11, Bin Laden's Unlikely Gift To China And Russia

The September 11 attacks both mobilized America and showed its fragility. Twenty years later, the United States is withdrawing from the Middle East. The greatest beneficiary is not the Muslim world, as Bin Laden dreamed, but two powers reborn in the East.

A Syran government army soldier shows a portrait of Bin Laden, 2016

Dominique Moisi


PARIS — "Men make their own history, but they do not make the history they please." Twenty years after the attacks of September 11, 2001, could Karl Marx's old formula help us understand the upheavals that have occurred in the world during the last two decades?

With the return of the Taliban to power in Kabul, it would be tempting to consider that nothing has happened during these past 20 years beyond the noise, the fury and the unnecessary suffering. Has the world — at least in Kabul — not returned to the way it was in 2001?

Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Behind the deceptive appearance of continuity, the world has changed profoundly. But not necessarily in the direction desired by its main protagonists in 2001. Recently declassified manuscripts in Bin Laden's writing — found in his Pakistani hideout in 2011 — shed light on his intentions.

The man behind the 9/11 attacks did not just want to hurt and humiliate America, and rally Muslims behind the creation of a new caliphate. He was convinced that once they were wounded in their flesh and on their own territory, American citizens would take to the streets to demand — as they had done during the Vietnam War — that their country be withdrawn not from Asia but from the Middle East.

With the end of the U.S. presence, everything would become possible: from the overthrow of the Arab regimes in place to the eventual disappearance of that foreign body in the land of Islam, the state of Israel. The conflict between the "believers" and the "infidels" would end in the total defeat of the latter, thus transforming the history of the world.

The main beneficiaries of Bin Laden's were the non-Arab powers in the region: Turkey, Iran and Israel.

In fact, exactly the opposite happened, at least — and this is an essential precision — in the short term. Driven by a desire for self-defense as much as revenge, the United States invaded Afghanistan to drive out the Taliban, which had provided a sanctuary for al-Qaeda terrorists. Attacks on U.S. soil would result in more, not less, America in the Middle East. And the main beneficiaries of Bin Laden's destabilization enterprise were the non-Arab powers in the region: Turkey, Iran and, most importantly, Israel.

Everything happened as if Bin Laden's main intention was to strengthen the Jewish State. Polls conducted in the Arab world as early as 2011 showed (and continue to show) that only a tiny minority of Muslims (1 per 100,000) recognize themselves in the radical project carried by Bin Laden. Moreover, as Fareed Zakaria notes in The Washington Post, the vast majority of Islamist groups, from Boko Haram in Nigeria to the Al Shabab in the Horn of Africa — not forgetting of course the Taliban in Afghanistan — are local, not global. Their destructive capabilities have not been eliminated, but severely curtailed.

Two pictures showing America's beginning and end of the war in Afghanistan — Photo: Cover Images/ZUMA

Bin Laden has completely failed to unite Muslims behind his romantically bloody project. He succeeded — posthumously — in only one respect, which is certainly decisive: he weakened America and accelerated its departure from the Middle East. But the beneficiaries of this process are neither Muslims nor even Arabs: at the global level, they are the Chinese and the Russians.

In short, Bin Laden has weakened the radical Muslim world and weakened the liberal Western world. And he has done so essentially for the benefit of "Oriental despotism," to use the expression of the American philosopher of German origin, Karl Wittfogel. Historians will tell us whether it is not America above all that has weakened itself, by setting itself objectives that were simply not attainable: to transform Afghanistan and then Iraq into democracies based on the Western model. Foreign invasions never produce democratic regimes in poor and deeply divided societies.

Is the "Biden Doctrine" — which has just been clarified by its author the day after the fall of Kabul — as unrealistic today as Bin Laden's project was yesterday? For Biden, once America has put Afghanistan and the Middle East more generally in its past, it will finally be able to refocus on more important challenges such as global warming or its rivalry with China. It will do so by adopting methods of fighting terrorism or authoritarian rivals, which are more indirect, more appropriate and cost infinitely less in terms of money and human lives.

In geopolitics, perceptions are an essential part of reality.

Unfortunately, the assumption that America — with its allies — are in a much better position to face the challenges of 2021 (which are not the same as those of 2001), is not only partially founded. It presupposes, first of all, that Afghanistan does not become a sanctuary for terrorists. This is far from being guaranteed.

And in geopolitics, perceptions are an essential part of reality. Yet the perception of America — by its adversaries as well as by its allies — has changed profoundly since September 11, 2001 and even more so since the fall of Kabul on August 15, 2021. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the Europeans spontaneously offered their help to their wounded American brother: an offer disdainfully declined. In this summer of 2021, Europe is no longer wondering what it can do for America, but how it can live without it.

In search of a new "life insurance" policy, it turns to itself. But can Europe — despite its laudable declarations of commitment — present itself as an alternative to America, a credible recourse, if not for the world, at least for itself? In fact, it has no choice. The "return of America" is not the return of the West, no more deeply united in the face of the climate challenge than in the face of China.

Bin Laden has weakened the Arab-Muslim world and the Western world, strengthened Israel and accelerated the rise of Asia. This is a first reading that we will necessarily watch evolve over time.

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A tribute to the 30,000 Iranian political prisoners murdered in Iran in 1988

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Hannah Steinkopf-Frank and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Laba diena!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where Afghanistan's Taliban demand to speak at the United Nations, China takes a bold ecological stand and we find out why monkeys kept their tails and humans didn't. Business magazine America Economia also looks at how Latin American countries are looking to attract a new generation of freelancers known as "digital nomads" in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.



• Taliban ask to speak at UN: With global leaders gathered in New York for the 76th meeting of the UN General Assembly, Afghanistan's new rulers say their country's previously accredited United Nations ambassador no longer represents the country, and have demanded a new Taliban envoy speak instead. Afghanistan is scheduled to give the final intervention next Monday to the General Assembly, and a UN committee must now rule who can speak.

• Four corpses found on Belarus border with Poland: The discovery of bodies of four people on Belarus-Poland border who appear to have died from hypothermia are raising new accusations that Belarus is pushing migrants to the eastern border of the European Union, possibly in retaliation over Western sanctions following the contested reelection of the country's strongman Alexander Lukashenko. The discovery comes amid a surge of largely Afghani and Iraqi migrants attempting to enter Poland in recent weeks.

• China to stop building coal-burning power plants abroad: Under pressure to limit emissions to meet Paris climate agreement goals, China announces an end to funding future projects in Indonesia, Vietnam and other countries through its Belt and Road initiative.

• Turkey ratifies Paris climate agreement: Following a year of wildfires and flash floods, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced at the UN that Turkey will become the last G-20 country to ratify the emissions-limiting accords. Turkey already signed the agreement in 2016, but has yet to hold a vote in parliament.

• Mass evacuations following Canary Islands volcano: More than 6,000 people have fled the Spanish archipelago as heavy flows of lava have buried hundreds of homes. Four earthquakes have also hit the Canaries since the Sunday eruption, which could also cause other explosions and the release of toxic gas.

• Rare earthquake hits Melbourne: The 5.9 magnitude quake struck near Melbourne in southern Australia, with aftershocks going as far Adelaide, Canberra and Launceston. Videos shared on social media show at least one damaged building, with power lines disrupted in Australia's second largest city. No injuries have been reported.

• The evolutionary tale of tails: Charles Darwin first discovered that humans evolved to lose this biological trait. But only now are New York scientists showing that it was a single genetic tweak that could have caused this shift, while our monkey relatives kept their backside appendages.


"The roof of Barcelona" — El Periodico daily reports on the latest delay from what may be the longest-running construction project in the world. Work on the iconic Barcelona church La Sagrada Familia, which began all the way back in 1882 as the vision of master architect Antoni Gaudí, was slated to be completed in 2026. The Barcelona-based daily reports that a press conference Tuesday confirmed that the deadline won't be met, in part because of delays related to COVID-19. Officials also provided new details about the impending completion of the Mare de Déu tower (tower of the Virgin), the first tower of the temple to be completed in 44 years. Although it is currently the second tallest spire of the complex, it will become the highest point of the Sagrada Familia, reaching 172.5 meters thanks to an illuminated "great cross."


Latin America, the next mecca for digital nomads

Latin American countries want to cash in on the post-pandemic changes to the fundamental ways we work and live, in particular by capitalizing on a growing demand from the new wave of remote workers and "youngish" professional freelancers with money to spend, reports Natalia Vera Ramírez in business magazine America Economia.

💻🏖️ Niels Olson, Ecuador's tourism minister, is working hard to bring "digital nomads" to his country. He believes that attracting this new generation of freelancers who can work from anywhere for extended visits is a unique opportunity for all. Living in a town like Puerto López, he wrote on Twitter, the expat freelancer could "work by the sea, live with a mostly vaccinated population, in the same time zone, (enjoy) an excellent climate, and eat fresh seafood." For Ecuador, the new influx of visitors with money to spend would help boost the country's economy.

🧳 While online-based freelancers already hopped from country to country before COVID-19, the pandemic has boosted their current numbers to around 100 million worldwide. The Inter-American Development Bank estimates there could be a billion roaming, digital workers by 2050. Some European countries already issue visas for digital nomads. They include Germany, Portugal, Iceland, Croatia, Estonia and the Czech Republic, but in the Americas, only four countries make the list, namely Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Panama and Costa Rica.

💰 In August 2021, Costa Rica approved a law for remote workers and international service providers, intended to attract digital nomads and make its travel sector more competitive. The law provides legal guarantees and specific tax exemptions for remote workers choosing to make the country their place of work. It allows foreign nationals earning more than $3,000 a month to stay for up to a year in the country, with the ability to renew their visa for an additional year. If applicants are a family, the income requisite rises to $5,000.

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$2.1 billion

Google announced yesterday it will spend $2.1 billion to buy a sprawling Manhattan office building, in one of the largest sales of a building in U.S. history. The tech giant plans on growing its New York workforce to more than 14,000 people.


It is sickening and shameful to see this kind of president give such a lie-filled speech on the international stage.

— Opposition Brazilian congresswoman Vivi Reis in response to President Jair Bolsonaro's inflammatory 12-minute speech at the UN General Assembly. The unvaccinated head of state touted untested COVID-19 cures, criticized public health measures and boasted that the South American country's environmental protections were the best in the world.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Hannah Steinkopf-Frank & Bertrand Hauger

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